The Roberts' Supreme Court had no idea what it was unleashing on our democracy and on the American people when six years ago this week, the Court issued the Citizens United decision.
The decision struck down the ban on corporate spending in federal elections and led to a series of developments that has left our political system and campaign finance laws in shambles. The decision:
- returned corrupting, unlimited contributions and secret money to federal elections;
- provided billionaires and multimillionaires with unprecedented influence over our elections and government decisions;
- led to the creation of individual-candidate Super PACs that raise unlimited contributions, support only one candidate and eviscerate candidate contribution limits enacted to prevent corruption;
- led to the use of nonprofit groups to launder unlimited, secret contributions into federal elections; and
- resulted in Super PACs and nonprofit groups spending, to date, more than $1.5 billion in unlimited contributions - including more than $500 million in unlimited, secret contributions.
By the time the 2016 election is over, America's Super Rich will have given the largest amount of the biggest contributions and the most secret money ever provided in our history to support candidates for President and Congress.
A system of unlimited contributions is an inherently corrupt system. That's what the Supreme Court found in in Buckley v Valeo (1976). A system of unlimited, secret contributions is even more dangerous because it provides opportunities for donors and officeholders to buy and sell government decisions with no way to hold them accountable.
The numbers since Citizens United tell a stunning story of the way the Supreme Court has given the Super Rich extraordinary influence in our political system. The top 100 donors in the 2012 national elections gave an average contribution of $4.7 million per donor to Super PACs, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
The top two donors, Sheldon and Miriam Adelson, gave more than $90 million -- including $30 million to the Super PAC supporting only Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
The Supreme Court's idea that a $30 million contribution like this cannot corrupt a candidate as long as the expenditures of the money are "independent" is both naïve and patently wrong.
Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Richard Posner, considered by many to be the nation's most influential conservative judge not on the Supreme Court, had a much better understanding of how money works in American politics. Judge Posner said, "[It] is difficult to see what practical difference there is between super PAC donations and direct campaign donations, from a corruption standpoint."
Judge Posner has said about the Citizens United decision: "Our political system is pervasively corrupt due to our Supreme Court taking away campaign-contribution restrictions on the basis of the First Amendment."
In the 2016 election cycle, the role of the Super Rich in financing our elections will far exceed anything that anyone could have imagined pre-Citizens United.
In an unprecedented move, Charles and David Koch, worth $40 billion each, said last year they intend to spend, through the Koch political network, as much as $750 million (revised from $889 million) in the run up to the 2016 elections.
Since the Koch network operates in secret, we will not know how much of their spending comes from their own money and how much will come from their Super Rich colleagues supporting their network.
What we do know is that the Koch brothers have enormous economics stakes in government policies that deal with climate change, energy policies, environmental regulations, and tax laws, among others. We also know that the potential influence over government policies that can result from the massive campaign-related expenditures will flow to the Koch brothers.
In another unprecedented development, $176 million in unlimited contributions - or nearly half of the money raised for the presidential primary candidates as of last October - was given by just 158 families, according to The New York Times (October 10, 2015).
"More than 50 members of these families have made the Forbes 400 list of the country's top billionaires," according to the Times article. "Sixty-four of the families made their wealth in finance, the largest single faction among the super-donors of 2016."
This explosion of big money from the Super Rich in our political system is happening at a time of ever-growing concern by ordinary Americans about the income and wealth disparities in the country, and about Wall Street's power and influence in our political system.
Billionaires have been coming out of the woodworks to support 2016 presidential candidates.
Four billionaires who made their fortunes in fracking and investments gave $36 million last year to three Super PACs supporting Senator Ted Cruz, money that helped to jump start Cruz's presidential campaign.
A billionaire businessman pledged $10 million in 2015 to support Senator Marco Rubio's presidential campaign. He was joined this year by a billionaire hedge fund manager who ius raising money to support Rubio's candidacy.
Former billionaire Hank Greenberg, a former head of AIG, gave $10 million this year to a Super PAC to support Jeb Bush. He is suing the government, which bailed AIG, out with the apparent goal of retaining his billionaire status.
Billionaires George Soros, Haim Saban and Steven Spielberg have given $1 million each to the Super PAC supporting Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign.
And it is apparently only a matter of time before billionaire Sheldon Adelson and his millions will be heard from in the 2016 elections.
Other billionaires have created their own Super PACs to provide support federal candidates.
Billionaire Carl Icahn, an activist shareholder, is launching his own Super PAC with $150 million of his own money to support changes in the corporate tax laws.
Billionaire Tom Steyer, an environmental activist, provided $70 million of his own money to fund his Super PAC in the 2014 congressional elections and is expected to provide millions more for the 2016 elections.
Billionaire Michael Bloomberg, a businessman and gun control advocate, provided more than $17 million to fund his Super PAC in the 2014 elections and is also expected to provide millions more for the 2016 elections.
And on it goes.
Some of have argued that Jeb Bush's poor showing in the primaries, despite having an individual-candidate Super PAC that has raised more than $100 million to support him, shows that such Super PACs may not matter that much. This misses the point.
The billionaires and multimillionaires who support winning presidential and congressional candidates by providing huge contributions to their Super PACs are what constitute the dangers here. These donors will end up with enormous influence in Washington and widespread opportunities to obtain the economic benefits they want in return for the campaign money they provided. Thus, the danger here is legalized corruption.
The Supreme Court has empowered the Super Rich, undermined ordinary Americans and subverted our democracy. This is not the representative system of government envisioned in our Constitution.
The Supreme Court in Citizens United ignored the Founders concerns about corruption, the nation's history and the reality of big money in American politics. The Court also had no understanding of the harmful impact the decision would have on the faith and confidence of the American people in their government and elected representatives.
Even within the boundaries of this radical decision, however, there are major reforms that can be enacted to combat and counter the onslaught of big money in our elections. A major battle for these campaign finance reforms lies ahead.
The Citizens United decision will not stand the test of time. It will be overturned one day when a majority sits on the Supreme Court that is not blind to the enormous damage Citizens United has done to our constitutional system of government.
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